IT didn’t take more than a few minutes to like Lawrence Wosskow. That was par for the course. He got onwards and upwards by people liking him.
He was the chap who made a profit on some land in Central America and invested it in the then infant Café Rouge because he hit it off with the owner. He used the profits from that to buy an ice cream company in The Peak, whose owner took a shine to him, and struck up a friendship with Eddie Healey, the billionaire owner of Sheffield’s giant Meadowhall shopping complex, when he sold products there.
Money flowed in and he founded Out of Town Restaurants, the biggest UK restaurant chain then . . . but let’s go back to the beginning. If the former Silverdale pupil’s story is the ‘Local Boy Makes Good’ variety there is also a touch of Greek Tragedy.
I’d been a bit sceptical before meeting him at the old Hanrahan’s bar in 1992 as, glass of orange juice and straw in hand, he told me he’d bought Bradwell’s ice cream, a much loved but very local ice cream company.
Some months earlier I’d run a story saying Noel Bradwell, third generation owner of Bradwell’s Ice Cream, wanted to retire and needed a buyer. Lawrence, back in Sheffield from London because his wife Julie wanted their first child to be born here, and was looking to find a business.
He at first bid for the ski slope but missed out by a few thousand pounds. He must have been thanking his lucky stars in the years after that.
He told me his mother had shown him the cutting on Bradwell’s and suggested he buy it. Journalists like to feel they are involved and that much was true. But his mum also lived next door to Noel and he would have known anyway! What clinched a good story was he was going to use the popular Last of the Summer Wine TV character Norah Batty as his company logo.
Media-savvy Lawrence never intended that but he was good copy, as we say in the trade. I was to write about him and his ventures, on and off, over the next few decades.
Now he’s telling his own story in his self-published autobiography Little Chef, The Heart of the Deal. He was a young tearaway at school (a teacher wrote in his report that if he took as much interest in his lessons as with girls he would be a genius). He still finished up with 2 A-levels and 10 O-levels.
He was a genius at business. He became Marks & Spencer’s youngest-ever buyer at 24, took over or founded a series of successful companies and was, as he admits, “running at 100mph” when stress led to a near fatal heart attack after watching England crash out of the World Cup to Portugal in Germany in 2006.
He was on the brink of reviving the ailing Little Chef, an out-of-date empire of roadside cafes. Told to take it easy and quit business for up to three years the big plans fizzled out. Little Chef collapsed. After his brush with the Grim Reaper Lawrence moved his family to the United States, leaving his businesses and power of attorney in the hands of a childhood friend, James Burdall, who fleeced him of several millions (figures vary) and caused the collapse of his business empire.
The first I heard was when, not long after I’d retired I got a telephone call from him while I was driving to a holiday in Suffolk. I contacted my old office to put them on the scent.
Most people who are very rich have not made their money nicely. Lawrence Wosskow doesn’t fit that mould. He says he is able to ‘mirror’ the people he is with. Perhaps that is what worked with me.
I kept on writing about him although some stories were left to The Star’s business desk. To jazz up my copy I had dubbed Lawrence King Cone until I got a phone call asking me to stop because schoolfriends were teasing his son Toby. Regretfully I agreed. His family is everything. He claims it cost him £25,000 to replace the branding which featured his daughter Hannah, then aged two, because by the time she got to six she, too, was being called names at school.
He has had time for retrospection. Lawrence suggests that he suffered from inherited anxiety which he suppressed with an adrenaline rush from his business interests. He didn’t leave things to others. Before buying Little Chef he personally visited 220 out of its 234 outlets in 60 days.
There are some good stories in the book. He paid £250,000 for the Loseley ice cream brand and stock then discovered the stock was worth £300,000 so he’d bought it for nothing. He turned around another failing ice cream company, in North Wales, which so infuriated the former owner (whom Lawrence still sportingly employed) that he sabotaged the refrigeration unit. With half a ton of melting ice cream it was a race against time to find alternative storage. The ex-boss spent time in the cooler.
Another who did, Burdall, the friend who shafted him, was sent to prison for four years in March 2014 for swindling him out of £1.2m (although in his book Lawrence reckons it was nearer £3m, with the collapse of his companies). Bradwell’s was only saved with an injection of his own cash. “What hurt most . . . was the fact that Burdall transferred £20,000 the day he took over the chequebook, the very day I left for the United States. What a complete an utter scumbag,” he writes.
Later parts of the book chronicle the partying and high-profile friends he has made since, from Sir Elton John to Sir Richard Branson. He has done a lot for charity. Despite the name dropping he comes across as a genuinely decent, perhaps a bit too trusting bloke. After several years he and Julie, his teenaged sweetheart since 17, left the USA for tax reasons and now live in the Bahamas.
These days Lawrence (who, unfortunately, has written the book in American English) is a property developer. Sadly Meadowhall, now in different hands, turfed out his businesses through non-payment of rent during the Burdall saga. There are still not too many nice guys in business.
Little Chef: The Heart of the Deal is available on Amazon. Profits from the book will go to the Elton John Aids Foundation and Dreamflight.